This is my last column for the time being: from today, I’m taking a year’s sabbatical.
Writing in this space is the most gratifying job I’ve ever had, but also the toughest. It’s like owning a pet dragon: I feel lucky to have it, but it needs to be fed high-quality meat at regular intervals . . . and if something goes wrong, there’s a substantial risk of being blasted by fire. And so, to ensure a supply of good meat in the future, I’m taking some time off. Part of this is to work on a book project. But I will also be reading, reflecting, and replenishing my stash of ideas.
Which brings me to the subject of this column. This week, as it is the last, I thought I’d write more personally, about how I put these pieces together — and where the ideas come from.
For me, ideas are capricious. They appear at unpredictable (and sometimes inconvenient) moments — when I’m in the bath, falling asleep, jumping rope, talking to friends. They are also like buses — it’s never clear when the next one will come, or how many will arrive at once.
So it’s important to catch them when they do appear: to that end, I have a list. It’s not well-organized — my desk is littered with scraps of paper and post-it notes, covered in scrawls like:
• Seven amusing things to do with bacteria? • Funny methods? Find paper where scientist dressed as a moose. Also tickling paper — tickle 7 orangutans, 5 gorillas, 4 chimps . . . • Do sexually transmitted diseases increase sex drive? • Oxytocin and diplomacy • Painting the planet • Taking names
To elaborate on the last four: some parasites are known to alter the behavior of the host so as to increase their own transmission. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, for example, spends most of its time in rats and cats, and needs to get from one to the other. Infected rats, instead of avoiding places that smell of cat urine, show a foolhardy attraction to them — which presumably makes the rats more likely to be captured and eaten, thus allowing the parasite to return to the body of a cat. Since organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases can only spread if those who are infected copulate with new partners, you might therefore expect they would evolve to enhance their host’s desire for new sexual encounters. Testing this in humans is problematic. But it could be looked at in other animals. Indeed, there is tentative evidence that insects are sometimes victims of such manipulation.
On oxytocin. This is a hormone that, when given as a nasal spray, has been shown to increase trust; at one point I considered arguing that it should be administered to all peace negotiators.
On painting the planet. I was charmed by the recent discovery that the colors of dinosaur feathers can sometimes be discerned from fossils — and by the thought that with this knowledge we can start to give real color to the planet’s past. Also, working from what we know of how today’s birds and lizards see the world, we can infer how the world might have looked like to a dinosaur.
On names. I have a fat file of disparate name facts. For example: it’s often argued that your name affects your life. It’s been suggested, for example, that girls with “girlie” names tend to be bad at math, apparently because the world expects them to be. Then there’s a set of reports about last names and monogamy — last names are usually inherited from the father, as is the Y chromosome. So names and Y chromosomes will be inherited together — if mothers are faithful to their husbands, and there is no adoption.
The OnLIne Virtual Information Assistant
Also in the file: dolphins are said to have names. Though whether it’s a name (a whistle that other dolphins use to address a given individual) or a personal theme tune (something the animal whistles to announce itself) is not clear. But the real reason I considered writing about all this is that I wanted to gripe about the fate of “Olivia.” It used to be a rare name — which I liked. But it is now among the most popular names for baby girls in England and Wales. It is the name of a pig in a series of children’s books; you can even buy the stuffed toy. And — worst of all — it has become an acronym. Some time ago, I walked into the Imperial College library to see advertisements for “OLIVIA: OnLIne Virtual Information Assistant.” Harumph.
To try and tempt ideas to arrive, I talk to people and I read a lot. I always read the press releases from Nature for example, and I am a regular visitor to Science Daily, a Web site that collects science headlines and press releases. A couple of colleagues reliably alert me to interesting papers, too. All that gives me a sense of what’s out there.
But having an idea is one thing; developing it is another. Some ideas look great from the bathtub, but turn out to be as flimsy as soap bubbles — they pop when you touch them. Others are so huge they can’t easily be treated in 1,500 words or less, or would take two or three months to prepare. Still others — luckily — are just right. But I don’t usually find out which is which until I begin to investigate them.
This is the part I like most. I go to a science database called the ISI Web of Knowledge (this is not an open database, alas; my access is through Imperial College), and I start fishing: I type in key terms — fossil and color; brain and exercise; praying mantis and cannibal — and see what comes up. This gives me a sense of how much is known, and how complex the subject is. And then I begin to read. And read. And follow threads of information — who has referred to this paper? What is the original source of that fact?
Having done this, I let the information percolate. Often it takes me several runs at a subject to create something coherent. A few weeks ago, for example, I published a piece about cuckoos; but that was the fourth time I had tried to write it, and the final version represented a fusion among several different subjects I had been playing with. Perhaps I’ll give the full treatment to one of the related subjects when I come back.
Before I go, I want to say thank you — to everyone who has read the column, commented on it or written to me, whether with enthusiasm, ire, suggestions or questions. I also want to thank the many friends and colleagues who have discussed ideas with me, commented on drafts, improved the rigor and clarity of my thinking, responded to queries and stimulated my imagination.
Above all, however, I want to thank those who, one way or another, have helped me week in, week out. Special thanks to: Thiago Carvalho, Martin Espindola, Nick Franks and the other members of the Biophysics group at Imperial College, Dan Haydon, Elizabeth Jones, Gideon Lichfield, Oliver Morton, Dmitri Petrov and, above all, Jonathan Swire. I owe you guys more than I can say. Thanks.
So, until the next time — goodbye, everybody! And thanks again.
I found the paper where the scientist dresses in a moose suit. See note 12 of Berger, J., Swenson, J. E., and Persson, I.-L. 2001. “Recolonizing carnivores and naïve prey: conservation lessons from Pleistocene extinctions.” Science 291: 1036-1039. The tickling paper was Ross, M. D., Owen, M. J., and Zimmermann, E. 2009. “Reconstructing the evolution of laughter in great apes and humans.” Current Biology 19: 1106-1111.
The extent to which parasites have evolved to manipulate their hosts is controversial. However, reasonably strong evidence exists for Toxoplasma; see, for example, Berdoy, M., Webster, J. P. and Macdonald, D. W. 2000. “Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 267: 1591-1594; and Vyas, A. et al. 2007. “Behavioral changes induced by Toxoplasma infection of rodents are highly specific to aversion of cat odors.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 6442-6447. Note that Toxoplasma has also been suggested to cause behavioral changes in humans, perhaps including some cases of schizophrenia — see Yolken, R. H., Dickerson, F. B. and Torrey, E. F. 2009. “Toxoplasma and schizophrenia.” Parasite Immunology 31: 706-715. However, as far as I know, there is no suggestion that any parasite-induced changes in human behavior are an advantage for the parasite. For a review of the evidence, such as it is, that some insects are made more promiscuous by their sexually transmitted diseases, see Knell, R. J. and Webberley, K. M. 2004. “Sexually transmitted diseases of insects: distribution, evolution, ecology and host behaviour.” Biological Reviews 79: 557-581.
For oxytocin increasing trust see, for example, Kosfeld, M. et al. 2005. “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” Nature 435: 673-676.
Inferring dinosaur feather color from fossils has been in the news: see Li, Q. et al. 2010. “Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur.” Science 327: 1369-1372; and Zhang, F. et al. 2010. “Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds.” Nature 463: 1075-1078.
On names. I first read about girls’ names and mathematics in The Guardiannewspaper; I was never able to find the original research. For an overview of research into Y chromosomes and surnames, see King, T. E. and Jobling, M. A. 2009. “What’s in a name? Y chromosomes, surnames and the genetic genealogy revolution.” Trends in Genetics 25: 351-360. For a discussion of dolphin whistles, and whether they are names, see Barton, R. A. 2006. “Animal communication: do dolphins have names?” Current Biology 16: R598-R599. For Olivia being among the most popular names in England and Wales, see here. The series of books about Olivia the Pig are by Ian Falconer. To see what I mean about the acronym, go to the Imperial College library information page and type “online virtual information assistant” (in quotes) into the search box.
Poor countries are developing the diseases of the rich, with lethal consequences
Sep 24th 2011 | KAMPALA AND NEW YORK | from the print edition
THE Uganda Cancer Institute is on a hilltop with a fine view of the verdant capital, Kampala. But most of its patients are too ill to stand. They have spent their life’s savings for a chance of a cure, but most die within weeks of being admitted. “They come too late,” says Jackson Orem, the clinic’s director.
Of Ugandans who die of cancer, 96% never see a medical practitioner. The country’s health-care system was designed to treat infectious diseases: the institute’s neighbour is a big tuberculosis unit. Non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart and respiratory ailments have not been priorities. Dr Orem’s institute has the only cancer unit for the country’s 34m people. Kidney failure (a result of diabetes) is a death warrant. Uganda has only seven dialysis machines. The cheapest transplant (in India) costs $40,000.
Time was when people in poor countries were too hungry and hardworking to be obese, could not afford cigarettes and mostly died before the ailments of ripe middle age kicked in. Non-communicable diseases were a rich-world problem. Not any more. Affluence and urbanisation mean new kinds of unhealthy lifestyles. Developing countries already bear more than 80% of the burden of chronic illnesses. Their share will grow—at a time when older diseases are still ravaging the poor. In India over two-fifths of children under five are malnourished, yet obesity is mushrooming. The leader of the main opposition party, Nitin Gadkari, is the latest public figure to be fitted with a gastric band.
Old and new diseases compound each other. Diabetics are three times as likely to contract tuberculosis. Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer common in equatorial Africa, is linked to malaria. HIV patients on antiretroviral treatment are at a higher risk of developing diabetes and cancer. Two-thirds of Mr Orem’s cancer patients in Uganda also have HIV. “None of the HIV resources went to cancer—a very big mistake,” he says. Julio Frenk, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, highlights the contradiction between spending thousands of dollars on each patient with AIDS but not offering “pennies” for those with diabetes.
The World Health Organisation expects deaths from non-communicable diseases to rise by 15% between 2010 and 2020, with jumps of over 20% in Africa and South-East Asia. The number of Chinese diabetics is expected to double by 2025. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, chronic illnesses are likely to surpass maternal, child and infectious diseases as the biggest killer by 2030. Most of them stem from sugar, fat, smoke and sedentary lifestyles. But they also include sickle-cell disease, a blood disorder that is the biggest non-communicable killer of Africa’s children. It is easily treatable, but almost always goes undiagnosed.
The countries concerned are woefully unprepared. Their health-care systems are designed for acute problems, not least because that is what foreign donors pay for. Less than 3% of aid for health goes to chronic illnesses. Many patients without health insurance delay treatment until it is too late. Many of the drugs needed are no longer covered by patents, but tariffs, poor distribution and high mark-ups still make them costly and scarce. The demands on health authorities are also greater. The right jab can protect a child for life, but chronic diseases may require lifelong medication. A big cause of diabetes is unhealthy diet—but that stems from a complex overlap between brain chemistry and food-industry practice. Even rich countries find this hard to change.
A feeble response ensures that non-communicable diseases kill people earlier in poor countries than in rich ones. This has a grave impact not just on health, but on growth. According to the World Economic Forum, poor and middle-income countries will lose $7.3 trillion in output from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and lung disease by 2025 (see chart)—an annual loss of about 4%.
So far the world’s response has been to have meetings, most recently a UN summit in New York on September 19th-20th. The only other summit devoted to health was on HIV in 2001. A sense of crisis then brought a decade of dramatic progress. Heart disease does not arouse the same passion. The meeting passed a “political declaration”, but could not agree on targets for reducing non-communicable diseases. The declaration’s wording on drugs was opaque, reflecting stalled negotiations.
With no clear global lead, countries muddle along. Mr Orem’s institute in Kampala spends most of its money on drugs. He says a budget rise from $2.5m to $8m would help to train nurses and improve palliative care. But money is scarce and even the simplest tasks are tricky. It can take a month for a patient outside Kampala to get results from a biopsy.
Ala Alwan of the World Heath Organisation suggests that even simple steps can make a difference, such as reducing salt in foods, offering inexpensive drugs and raising tobacco taxes. This last is perhaps the single best way of curbing cancer and diseases of the heart and lungs, as well as raising money for health care. But James Sekajugo of the Ugandan health ministry says it is hard to fight the tobacco industry: “a very rich group here”. His country is trying to stop cancer before it starts. The ministry is considering spending more on vaccines against cervical cancer, one of the most deadly cancers for women.
Some hope to build on arrangements in place for treating HIV (itself now a chronic condition, not a death sentence). A programme in western Kenya called AMPATH once treated only HIV patients. Now it offers care for those with such illnesses as cancer and diabetes. Its door-to-door screening programme for HIV now tests for blood pressure and blood sugar. America’s PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), is trying to fight HIV by boosting broader health care.
The most sustainable efforts will be those that provide care and make money, too. In India Dr Mohan’s Diabetes Centres, a business, charges middle-class patients to subsidise care for the poor. Eli Lilly, an American pharmaceutical giant, is testing models for diabetes treatment in countries such as India, South Africa and Brazil (it also provides free insulin to AMPATH in Kenya). Help now, it reckons, and profit later. Novo Nordisk, the world’s biggest insulin manufacturer, is especially ambitious. In China it has given training to doctors and education for diabetics. Last year the firm controlled 63% of China’s insulin market. Now Lars Rebien Sorensen, its chief executive, wants to replicate the programme in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Chronic diseases are already a huge market. Sadly, it is also a growing one.
Investigations into a case of alleged scientific misconduct have revealed numerous holes in the oversight of science and scientific publishing
Sep 10th 2011 | from the print edition
ANIL POTTI, Joseph Nevins and their colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, garnered widespread attention in 2006. They reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that they could predict the course of a patient’s lung cancer using devices called expression arrays, which log the activity patterns of thousands of genes in a sample of tissue as a colourful picture (see above). A few months later, they wrote in Nature Medicine that they had developed a similar technique which used gene expression in laboratory cultures of cancer cells, known as cell lines, to predict which chemotherapy would be most effective for an individual patient suffering from lung, breast or ovarian cancer.
At the time, this work looked like a tremendous advance for personalised medicine—the idea that understanding the molecular specifics of an individual’s illness will lead to a tailored treatment. The papers drew adulation from other workers in the field, and many newspapers, including this one (see article), wrote about them. The team then started to organise a set of clinical trials of personalised treatments for lung and breast cancer. Unbeknown to most people in the field, however, within a few weeks of the publication of the Nature Medicine paper a group of biostatisticians at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, led by Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes, had begun to find serious flaws in the work.
Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes had been trying to reproduce Dr Potti’s results at the request of clinical researchers at the Anderson centre who wished to use the new technique. When they first encountered problems, they followed normal procedures by asking Dr Potti, who had been in charge of the day-to-day research, and Dr Nevins, who was Dr Potti’s supervisor, for the raw data on which the published analysis was based—and also for further details about the team’s methods, so that they could try to replicate the original findings.
A can of worms
Dr Potti and Dr Nevins answered the queries and publicly corrected several errors, but Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes still found the methods’ predictions were little better than chance. Furthermore, the list of problems they uncovered continued to grow. For example, they saw that in one of their papers Dr Potti and his colleagues had mislabelled the cell lines they used to derive their chemotherapy prediction model, describing those that were sensitive as resistant, and vice versa. This meant that even if the predictive method the team at Duke were describing did work, which Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes now seriously doubted, patients whose doctors relied on this paper would end up being given a drug they were less likely to benefit from instead of more likely.
Another alleged error the researchers at the Anderson centre discovered was a mismatch in a table that compared genes to gene-expression data. The list of genes was shifted with respect to the expression data, so that the one did not correspond with the other. On top of that, the numbers and names of cell lines used to generate the data were not consistent. In one instance, the researchers at Duke even claimed that their work made biological sense based on the presence of a gene, called ERCC1, that is not represented on the expression array used in the team’s experiments.
Even with all these alleged errors, the controversy might have been relegated to an arcane debate in the scientific literature if the team at Duke had not chosen, within a few months of the papers’ publication (and at the time questions were being raised about the data’s quality) to launch three clinical trials based on their work. Dr Potti and his colleagues also planned to use their gene-expression data to guide therapeutic choices in a lung-cancer trial paid for by America’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). That led Lisa McShane, a biostatistician at the NCI who was already concerned about Dr Potti’s results, to try to replicate the work. She had no better luck than Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes. The more questions she asked, the less concrete the Duke methods appeared.
In light of all this, the NCI expressed its concern about what was going on to Duke University’s administrators. In October 2009, officials from the university arranged for an external review of the work of Dr Potti and Dr Nevins, and temporarily halted the three trials. The review committee, however, had access only to material supplied by the researchers themselves, and was not presented with either the NCI’s exact concerns or the problems discovered by the team at the Anderson centre. The committee found no problems, and the three trials began enrolling patients again in February 2010.
Finally, in July 2010, matters unravelled when the Cancer Letter reported that Dr Potti had lied in numerous documents and grant applications. He falsely claimed to have been a Rhodes Scholar in Australia (a curious claim in any case, since Rhodes scholars only attend Oxford University). Dr Baggerly’s observation at the time was, “I find it ironic that we have been yelling for three years about the science, which has the potential to be very damaging to patients, but that was not what has started things rolling.”
A bigger can?
By the end of 2010, Dr Potti had resigned from Duke, the university had stopped the three trials for good, scientists from elsewhere had claimed that Dr Potti had stolen their data for inclusion in his paper in the New England Journal, and officials at Duke had started the process of retracting three prominent papers, including the one in Nature Medicine. (The paper in the New England Journal, not one of these three, was also retracted, in March of this year.) At this point, the NCI and officials at Duke asked the Institute of Medicine, a board of experts that advises the American government, to investigate. Since then, a committee of the institute, appointed for the task, has been trying to find out what was happening at Duke that allowed the problems to continue undetected for so long, and to recommend minimum standards that must be met before this sort of work can be used to guide clinical trials in the future.
At the committee’s first meeting, in December 2010, Dr McShane stunned observers by revealing her previously unpublished investigation of the Duke work. Subsequently, the committee’s members interviewed Dr Baggerly about the problems he had encountered trying to sort the data. He noted that in addition to a lack of unfettered access to the computer code and consistent raw data on which the work was based, journals that had readily published Dr Potti’s papers were reluctant to publish his letters critical of the work. Nature Medicine published one letter, with a rebuttal from the team at Duke, but rejected further comments when problems continued. Other journals that had carried subsequent high-profile papers from Dr Potti behaved in similar ways. (Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes did not approach the New England Journal because, they say, they “never could sort that work enough to make critical comments to the journal”.) Eventually, the two researchers resorted to publishing their criticisms in a statistical journal, which would be unlikely to reach the same audience as a medical journal.
Two subsequent sessions of the committee have included Duke’s point of view. At one of these, in March 2011, Dr Nevins admitted that some of the data in the papers had been “corrupted”. He continued, though, to claim ignorance of the problems identified by Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes until the Rhodes scandal broke, and to support the overall methods used in the papers—though he could not explain why he had not detected the problems even when alerted to anomalies.
At its fourth, and most recent meeting, on August 22nd, the committee questioned eight scientists and administrators from Duke. Rob Califf, a vice-chancellor in charge of clinical research, asserted that what had happened was a case of the “Swiss-cheese effect” in which 15 different things had to go awry to let the problems slip through unheeded. Asked by The Economist to comment on what was happening, he said, “As we evaluated the issues, we had the chance to review our systems and we believe we have identified, and are implementing, an improved approach.”
The university’s lapses and errors included being slow to deal with potential financial conflicts of interest declared by Dr Potti, Dr Nevins and other investigators, including involvement in Expression Analysis Inc and CancerGuide DX, two firms to which the university also had ties. Moreover, Dr Califf and other senior administrators acknowledged that once questions arose about the work, they gave too much weight to Dr Nevins and his judgment. That led them, for example, to withhold Dr Baggerly’s criticisms from the external-review committee in 2009. They also noted that the internal committees responsible for protecting patients and overseeing clinical trials lacked the expertise to review the complex, statistics-heavy methods and data produced by experiments involving gene expression.
That is a theme the investigating committee has heard repeatedly. The process of peer review relies (as it always has done) on the goodwill of workers in the field, who have jobs of their own and frequently cannot spend the time needed to check other people’s papers in a suitably thorough manner. (Dr McShane estimates she spent 300-400 hours reviewing the Duke work, while Drs Baggerly and Coombes estimate they have spent nearly 2,000 hours.) Moreover, the methods sections of papers are supposed to provide enough information for others to replicate an experiment, but often do not. Dodgy work will out eventually, as it is found not to fit in with other, more reliable discoveries. But that all takes time and money.
The Institute of Medicine expects to complete its report, and its recommendations, in the middle of next year. In the meantime, more retractions are coming, according to Dr Califf. The results of a misconduct investigation are expected in the next few months and legal suits from patients who believe they were recruited into clinical trials under false pretences will probably follow.
The whole thing, then, is a mess. Who will carry the can remains to be seen. But the episode does serve as a timely reminder of one thing that is sometimes forgotten. Scientists are human, too.
Correction: This article originally stated that by the end of 2010 officials at Duke University began the process of retracting five papers. That should have been three papers. This was corrected on September 8th.
A water pact with Malaysia upon which Singapore used to depend expired this week. Its end was marked by a cordial handover of a water catchment area in Johor and treatment facilities - a powerful testament of Singapore's progress towards greater self-sufficiency in water. Insight tells the story of that quest.
By Elgin Toh
A SIMPLE turn of the tap did not guarantee water if you happened to be in Singapore on April 24, 1963.
It was the first day of a water rationing exercise that would last 10 months.
An unusually dry spell both in Singapore and in the Tebrau River area in Johor - a primary water source for the island - caused water stocks to plunge dramatically, leaving the authorities with little choice but to impose restrictions.
For four days a week, depending on which area you lived in, you were either deprived of water between 8am and 2pm or between 2pm and 8pm.
People who did not ordinarily read the newspapers or listen to the radio suddenly found themselves having to scan headlines or turn knobs at least once a week - to stay informed about rationing schedules.
Those who forgot to store water in pails at home during the allocated timings had to stand in queues to use public taps.
The cost of food went up.
A government advisory that called for the washing of cars and watering of gardens to be 'kept to a minimum' clearly did not stop some. A forum letter in The Straits Times on May 3 had one reader wondering 'why the gentleman living opposite me still finds it necessary to water his lawn non-stop for 14 minutes' a day.
Eerily, the spying on neighbours went further than that.
Another letter on May 17 read: 'At a time when the state is facing an acute water shortage, is it proper for a person to bathe three times a day? That is exactly what my neighbour and his six children are doing every day of the week.'
Eventually, the rain returned and the reservoirs filled up. Curbs were finally lifted on Feb 28, 1964 - ironically, on a day when heavy rainfall caused an 11-year- old boy to drown.
Singaporeans who lived through that angsty period learnt a lesson they never forgot: that water, or the lack thereof, was a major source of weakness for the island-state.
This week, a no less momentous milestone in Singapore's aquatic history was crossed, but with far less public interest. A 50-year water agreement signed in 1961 - one of just two between Singapore and Malaysia - drew to a close.
As a result, a catchment area in Johor more than five times the size of Singapore's Central Catchment Nature Reserve ceased to serve Singapore's water needs, but with nary an eyebrow raised.
Public indifference, however, can be seen in a positive light. It is arguably a testament to Singapore's success in overcoming its water vulnerabilities.
What has happened since 1963?
In the words of Dr Joey Long of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 'the tables have turned'.
'While in the initial years Singapore's access to adequate water was viewed through the lens of security and survival, Singapore's present circumstances should be viewed with more optimism,' he said.
In 50 years, a virtuous mix of visionary leadership, meticulous groundwork and scientific advancements has helped Singapore exorcise her hydro-demons.
A tiny island-state ranked 170th out of a list of 190 nations in fresh water availability appears to be leapfrogging its way into water independence.
A matter of life and death
BUT there was a time when the situation was a lot more tense - and not just because people had to line up at public taps and tolerate dirty cars.
In 1970, seven years after that depressing drought, water security continued to keep Singapore's leaders awake at night.
'If these chaps do not observe the agreements, it will be a very serious matter for us,' said then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, referring to the two Singapore-Malaysia water agreements, in a meeting with Professor S. Jayakumar before he took over as Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations.
'It is a matter of life and death... it can lead to war,' he added.
Never far from Mr Lee's mind was the threat from Malaysian premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, relayed to him by the British, that 'if Singapore doesn't do what I want, I'll switch off the water supply'.
Coming just days after independence, the threat - though never acted upon - convinced him that 'as long as I was totally dependent on Malaysia's water supply, we would always be a satellite'.
That, combined with the Japanese blowing up water pipes that carried water across the strait from Johor in 1942, was what drove him to seek water self-sufficiency from the get-go, he later revealed.
The cards dealt to Singapore in 1965 were not promising.
The bulk of its water came from Johor. Two agreements signed in 1961 and 1962 allowed Singapore to buy water for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons (4,546 litres), excluding land rental costs in the catchment areas.
The expiry dates of the two water pacts were 2011 and 2061 respectively.
The 1961 agreement gave Singapore full and exclusive rights to draw water from Gunung Pulai, Pontian, Skudai and Tebrau. The 1962 agreement allowed Singapore to collect up to 250 million gallons of water a day from Johor River.
In exchange, treated water was sold back to Johor at the price of 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, which was below cost.
The two agreements were confirmed by both Singapore and Malaysia in their separation agreement and promptly lodged with the UN.
The British also left behind three reservoirs - MacRitchie, Peirce and Seletar.
At once, Mr Lee and his Government swung into action. One of his first initiatives: forming a unit under the Prime Minister's Office to coordinate water policy.
Singapore lacked natural aquifers and groundwater. But it did not lack rainfall, per se, receiving from the heavens 2,400mm annually, comfortably higher than the global average of 1,050mm.
Rather, what could not be found in abundance were water bodies and land that could 'catch' the rain.
In 1969, the capacity of Seletar Reservoir was enlarged and its catchment scope broadened.
The 1970s saw a flurry of activity.
The Government began studying the feasibility of various conventional and not-so-conventional water sources, and published in 1972 the Water Master Plan. This is seen by water experts as the first long-term blueprint for water resource development here.
Upper Peirce Reservoir was completed in 1975. That same year, Kranji River was dammed to separate seawater from freshwater. This created Kranji Reservoir - one of the first of several reservoirs formed this way.
But the Government also took chances with the not-so-likely. It constructed an experimental plant to recycle used water - a predecessor to Newater.
Unfortunately, the requisite technologies, such as reverse osmosis, were still premature. The tests failed to persuade policymakers that the idea was sufficiently economical or reliable and no permanent plant was built.
As the economy grew rapidly, it soon also became clear that Singapore could not simply expand reservoirs indefinitely. Industry was competing for land use.
A concerted effort at promoting conservation began. The first 'Water is precious' campaign, launched in 1971, reduced water consumption by 5 per cent.
Four decades on, the public education drive continues in schools, factories and the media, whether it is exemplifying 'water efficient homes' with toilets that use cistern water-saving bags or mandating self-shutting delayed action taps in buildings. To drive home the message, a water conservation tax was later introduced. It is levied today at a rate of 30 per cent for the first 40 litres per month. Beyond that, the tax rises to 45 per cent. The Government's aim is to cut per capita consumption from 155 litres today to 140 litres by 2030.
The 1980s and 1990s
THE 1980s saw both bright spots and dark ones in bilateral ties. From time to time, threats to fiddle with Singapore's water supply, whether serious or not, emanated from Malaysian society or officialdom or both.
In 1986, for instance, the visit of Israeli President Chaim Herzog to Singapore stoked anger across the causeway, prompting some to call for the treaties to be revoked or at least re-negotiated.
There was good reason for optimism in the late 1980s, when the two sides penned an agreement supplementing the 1962 one. Singapore was given the go-ahead to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over and above the original limit of 250 million gallons a day.
A decade passed. As it considered its long-term water needs, Singapore's leaders decided to negotiate supplementary agreements to extend the supply of water from Johor beyond 2061.
In 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the two sides came close to an agreement on a 'water-for-funds' deal, which was later called off.
Another round of talks took place in 2000 but differences remained over the sale price of raw water from Johor. There was initial agreement to raise the price from 3 sen per 1,000 gallons to 45 sen, and later to 60 sen.
Malaysia then said it wanted to unilaterally revise the price to RM6.25 per thousand gallons, a move Singapore insisted was not legally sound. After rounds of strongly worded exchanges in various forms, the matter quietened.
Ambitious new strategy to add two big taps
Four big taps
THE Singapore Government had been hard at work exploring alternative sources of water.
Even as talks with Malaysia ran into an impasse, efforts on another front were headed for a breakthrough that would 'change the whole equation', in the words of Dr Lee Poh Onn, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
After the failed 1974 experiment, Singapore decided to give recycled water another shot, sending two engineers to the United States in 1998 for a study trip.
Upon their return, they reported findings that suggested recycling had become viable, thanks to, among other things, advances in membrane technology. Subsequent studies corroborated the findings, prompting the Government to construct the first demo plant in Bedok in 2000.
The three-step process eventually adopted for the production of Newater involved filtration and reverse osmosis, removing particles as small as 0.001 microns before disinfecting the water under ultraviolet light. The water met US and UN standards and was, indeed, purer than tap water.
By May 2002, the Government was finally ready to go public with its bold new water strategy.
It was an ambitious plan to double the different types of water sources Singapore relied upon from two to four by 2011, the year the 1961 agreement with Malaysia expired.
Instead of relying only on water collected in reservoirs here and bought from Johor, there would be 'four big national taps' within 10 years. The two new 'taps' were desalination plants and Newater or water-reclamation plants.
In his speech to Parliament, then Environment Minister Lim Swee Say declared: 'Singapore certainly can become completely self-sufficient after 2061, if need be.'
The year 2061 was significant as it was when the 1962 water agreement with Malaysia would expire.
A toast to the future
FOR Newater to succeed, the public had to be willing to drink water that was previously sewage.
'Public acceptance is not guaranteed at the start. Recycled water has been rejected in Australia, where people term it 'yuck' water,' said Dr Eduardo Araral, assistant dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
'Singaporeans accepted it both because they are are pragmatic and because they trust the Government's promise that Newater is safe to drink,' he added.
Some 60,000 'toasted' with bottled Newater during the 2002 National Day Parade, including Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was then Prime Minister. Singapore now has five Newater plants, the largest of which is at Changi. Newater is used both in industries and indirectly for households, after it is mixed into reservoirs.
The next significant breakthrough came in desalination technology, although some call this success story a work in progress.
As the cost of desalting seawater fell by more than half in the decade leading up to 2002, PUB called for and received tenders to build a plant. In 2005, a desalination facility using reverse osmosis membranes was commissioned in Tuas. It was built by SingSpring, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hyflux. A second desalination plant in Tuas should be ready by 2013.
Of the current daily consumption of 380 million gallons, Newater and desalination now make up 40 per cent. PUB aims to raise that to 80 per cent by 2061, when all agreements with Johor expire.
Meanwhile, work on other fronts continue.
The completion of Marina Barrage in 2008 increased Singapore's water catchment area from half of its total land area to more than two-thirds. Studies are under way on the possibility of increasing this in future to 90 per cent through the use of treatment plants that handle both salt water and fresh water. There are now 17 reservoirs - up from three in 1965 - including Marina, Punggol and Serangoon.
Less visible upgrades may not be any less important. PUB has an ongoing programme to replace leaky asbestos cement water pipes with more corrosion-resistant ones. Also, an underground system of pumps and pipes connecting Singapore's reservoirs was completed in 2007 to prevent wastage by transferring water from full reservoirs to less full ones.
Turning weakness to strength
'I NEVER imagined we could progress from a situation of crisis to the situation of opportunity today,' said Dr Lee.
A dramatic turn of events, which he ultimately puts down to political will, means the water issue is now more likely to evoke hope than anxiety.
Research and development projects are creating jobs and expertise that can be exported. The PUB expects the GDP contribution from the water sector to grow from $0.5 billion in 2003 to $1.7 billion in 2015, with the number of jobs doubling to 11,000 by 2015.
To be sure, some latent risks remain.
Dr Araral warns, for instance, that skyrocketing energy prices in the future may yet cause problems for the much-vaunted but relatively fuel-guzzling desalination project, although that may in turn spur the development of other sources of water.
Terrorism, too, could derail the most carefully constructed of systems.
'Security experts note that water reservoirs are attractive targets of terrorists,' he said.
Nevertheless, most agree that whatever happens in the future, the achievements as they stand today already exceed the wildest of expectations - not least among them those of the water rationing generation.
Singaporeans can rest with the firm assurance that their secure access to this life-giving commodity is no longer in the hands of others.
In American science, race affects the chance of getting a grant
Aug 20th 2011 | from the print edition
Made it against the odds
YOU might expect that science, particularly American science, would be colour-blind. Though fewer people from some of the country’s ethnic minorities are scientists than the proportions of those minorities in the population suggest should be the case, once someone has got bench space in a laboratory, he might reasonably expect to be treated on merit and nothing else.
Unfortunately, a study just published in Science by Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas suggests that is not true. Dr Ginther, who was working on behalf of America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), looked at the pattern of research grants awarded by the NIH and found that race matters a lot. Moreover, it is not just a question of white supremacy. Asian and Hispanic scientists do just as well as white ones. Black scientists, however, do badly.
Dr Ginther and her colleagues analysed grants awarded by the NIH between 2000 and 2006, and correlated this information with the self-reported race of more than 40,000 applicants. Their results show that the chance of a black scientist receiving a grant was 17%. For Asians, Hispanics and whites the number was between 26% and 29%. Even when these figures were adjusted to take into account applicants’ prior education, awards, employment history and publications, a gap of ten percentage points remained.
This bias appears to arise in the NIH’s peer-review mechanism. Each application is reviewed by a panel of experts. These panels assign scores to about half the applications they receive (the others are rejected outright). Scored applications are then considered for grants by the various institutes that make up the NIH. The race of the applicant is not divulged to the panel. However, Dr Ginther found that applications from black scientists were less likely to be awarded a score than those from similarly qualified scientists of other races, and when they were awarded a score, that score was lower than the scores given to applicants of other races.
One possible explanation is that review panels are inferring applicants’ ethnic origins from their names, or the institutions they attended as students. Consciously or not, the reviewers may then be awarding less merit to those from people with “black-sounding” names, or who were educated at universities whose students are predominantly black. Indeed, a similar bias has been found in those recruiting for jobs in the commercial world. One well-known study, published in 2003 by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, found that fictitious CVs with stereotypically white names elicited 50% more offers of interviews than did CVs with black names, even when the applicants’ stated qualifications were identical.
Another possible explanation is social networking. It is in the nature of groups of experts (which is precisely what peer-review panels are) to know both each other and each other’s most promising acolytes. Applicants outside this charmed circle might have less chance of favourable consideration. If the charmed circle itself were racially unrepresentative (if professors unconsciously preferred graduate students of their own race, for example), those excluded from the network because their racial group was under-represented in the first place would find it harder to break in.
Though Dr Ginther’s results are troubling, it is to the NIH’s credit that it has published her findings. The agency is also starting a programme intended to alter the composition of the review panels, and—appropriately for a scientific body—will conduct experiments to see whether excising potential racial cues from applications changes outcomes. Other agencies, and not just in America, should pay strict attention to all this, and ask themselves if they, too, are failing people of particular races. Such discrimination is not only disgraceful, but also a stupid waste of talent.
Karen Armstrong's 4Fs; Sapolsky's flight/fight and chronic stress.
Beware the inner reptile
By Gillian Tett
Periods of acute stress in the markets offer intriguing examples of how our brains work
Back in the days of the “last” market crisis in 2008, a senior official at an interdealer broker – one of the firms that trade securities – observed an interesting pattern. Until then, he, like most traders, had assumed that finance was becoming an increasingly global, computerised game. In a world ruled by the internet, it was easier than ever before to trade with anyone, anywhere. In an era of 21st-century cybermoney – if not Star Trek – finance, bankers had evolved to control space and time.
But when Lehman Brothers collapsed, evolutionary “progress” crumbled. Suddenly, traders started placing orders by telephone, rather than computer, dealing only with people they knew personally. They were also refusing to take long-term decisions. Sometimes there were entirely rational explanations for this shift, but mostly the reaction was instinctive. “It was almost primeval,” my friend quips.
I have been pondering this comment during the last week, amid the latest market shock. Periods of acute stress in the markets are always fascinating to observe, since they can reveal much about how financial and political systems operate. They can also offer intriguing examples of how our brains, or cognitive maps, work, giving a subtle twist to the age-old concepts of human “fear” and “greed” – or rational self-interest, as the economic profession would argue.
Take a look, for example, at some fascinating research by Andrew Lo, a finance professor at MIT. Lo trained initially as an economist, but he has also spent part of his career trying to knit together the work of psychologists, neuroscientists, biologists and economists. In particular, he is fascinated by the idea that the evolution of the human species has left our brains with three parts. He identifies those parts as a central, “reptilian” core, which was the first to evolve, functions most rapidly and controls reflexive behaviour (by shutting down bodily functions that are in shock, say, to improve chances of survival); a “mammalian” layer that controls social desires and emotions (intuition, sexual urges and so on); and then the outer, “hominid” layer, which developed last and controls rational, sophisticated thought.
In normal circumstances, our hominid brain predominates. However, the mammalian (or emotional) brain never disappears, and reptilian instincts come to the fore in a crisis. And this has an important implication for finance: while “rational” economic theories can explain markets when our “hominid” brains are predominant (ie, most of the time), they are inadequate when our emotional, mammalian or instinctive, reptilian brains predominate.
Lo does not consider this a malfunction, but part of the adaptive techniques that have allowed humans to react to our environment and learn from mistakes over millennia. Thus it is no good arguing endlessly (as academics have done in recent years) about whether the efficient market hypothesis really works – it works when we are “hominid”, but not when we all turn “emotional” and fight for survival.
Unsurprisingly, many traditional economists hate Lo’s ideas. The problem with this theory – like most forms of behavioural finance – is that it is hard to turn into a tangible investment strategy. Well, not unless somebody finds a way to post a sign above bankers’ desks that reads: “Watch out, a reptile moment approaches!” But perhaps the real value of Lo’s idea is that it illustrates a point that we all instinctively know, but which economists and bankers sometimes forget: namely, that humans do not behave consistently, all the time.
Even our own perceptions of time can shift. Peter Atwater, a JPMorgan banker-turned-consultant, has recently been advising investment firms on strategy – and this has left him convinced of the importance of looking at “horizon preferences”. In times of calm markets, when people are confident, they plan for the long term, deal with strangers and reflect on the world as a whole.
At times of stress, though, time, social and geographical horizons collapse – and not only in moments of extreme tension. Atwater believes that the present slow-burn sense of insecurity is fostering a wider, longer-term shift towards “narrow” horizons, and this is influencing how finance and politics evolves. Cognitive maps change in ways we do not always notice.
None of this will be of much comfort to those traders who have just endured a brutal, rollercoaster week (even though people such as Atwater insist that analysing horizon preferences can enable you to be much smarter about your portfolio). They trust cyber finance.
But, personally, after several decades in which finance has been dominated by theories influenced by Newtonian physics, I find it very cheering that researchers such as Lo are trying to hop across other academic silos. The longer the crisis lasts, the more likely the field of behavioural finance will be boosted. Calling a banker a “rodent” or “snake”, in other words, may no longer be just a term of abuse. Right now, it may be a form of analysis too, and one we would be foolish to ignore.
Rather, their emotional range is more limited than ours, partly because, with little sense of time, they are trapped almost entirely in the present. Dogs can experience joy, anxiety and anger. But emotions that demand a capacity for self-reflection, such as guilt or jealousy, are almost certainly beyond them, contrary to the convictions of many dog owners.
Mr Bradshaw believes that it is difficult for people to empathise with the way in which dogs experience and respond to the world through their extraordinary sense of smell: their sensitivity to odours is between 10,000 and 100,000 times greater than ours. A newly painted room might be torture for a dog; on the other hand, their olfactory ability and their trainability allow dogs to perform almost unimaginable feats, such as smelling the early stages of a cancer long before a normal medical diagnosis would detect it.
Human beings and dogs
Man’s best friend
Scientific research throws new light on a very old partnership
Aug 6th 2011 | from the print edition
Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behaviour Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. By John Bradshaw. Basic Books; 324 pages; $25.99. Published in Britain as “In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding”. Allen Lane; £20. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
THE relationship between people and dogs is unique. Among domesticated animals, only dogs are capable of performing such a wide variety of roles for humans: herding sheep, sniffing out drugs or explosives and being our beloved companions. It is hard to be precise about when the friendship began, but a reasonable guess is that it has been going strong for more than 20,000 years. In the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of France, which contains the earliest known cave paintings, there is a 50-metre trail of footprints made by a boy of about ten alongside those of a large canid that appears to be part-wolf, part-dog. The footprints, which have been dated by soot deposited from the torch the child was carrying, are estimated to be about 26,000 years old.
The first proto-dogs probably remained fairly isolated from each other for several thousand years. As they became progressively more domesticated they moved with people on large-scale migrations, mixing their genes with other similarly domesticated creatures and becoming increasingly dog-like (and less wolf-like) in the process. For John Bradshaw, a biologist who founded the anthrozoology department at the University of Bristol, having some idea about how dogs got to be dogs is the first stage towards gaining a better understanding of what dogs and people mean to each other. Part of his agenda is to explode the many myths about the closeness of dogs to wolves and the mistakes that this has led to, especially in the training of dogs over the past century or so.
One idea has governed dog training for far too long, Mr Bradshaw says. Wolf packs are supposedly despotic hierarchies dominated by alpha wolves. Dogs are believed to behave in the same way in their dealings with humans. Thus training a dog effectively becomes a contest for dominance in which there can be only one winner. To achieve this the trainer must use a variety of punishment techniques to gain the dog’s submission to his mastery. Just letting a dog pass through a door before you or stand on the stairs above you is to risk encouraging it to believe that it is getting the upper hand over you and the rest of the household. Mr Bradshaw argues that the theory behind this approach is based on bad and outdated science.
Dogs share 99.6% of the same DNA as wolves. That makes dogs closer to wolves than we are to chimps (with which we have about 96% of our DNA in common), but it does not mean that their brains work like those of wolves. Indeed, the outgoing affability of most dogs towards humans and other dogs is in sharp contrast to the mix of fear and aggression with which wolves react to animals from other packs. “Domestication has been a long and complex process,” Mr Bradshaw writes. “Every dog alive today is a product of this transition. What was once another one of the wild social canids, the grey wolf, has been altered radically, to the point that it has become its own unique animal.” If anything, dogs resemble juvenile rather than fully adult canids, a sort of arrested development which accounts for the way they remain dependent on their human owners throughout their lives.
But what makes the dog-wolf paradigm especially misleading, Mr Bradshaw argues, is that until recently, the studies of wolves were of the wrong wolves in extremely artificial conditions. In the wild, wolf packs tend to be made up of close family members representing up to three generations. The father and mother of the first lot of cubs are the natural leaders of the pack, but the behavioural norm is one of co-operation rather than domination and submission. However, the wolves on which biologists founded their conclusions about dominance hierarchies were animals living in unnaturally constituted groups in captivity. Mr Bradshaw says that feral or “village” dogs, which are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than they are to wolves, are highly tolerant of one another and organise themselves entirely differently from either wild or captive wolves.
Dogs are not like nicely brought-up wolves, says the author, nor are they much like people despite their extraordinary ability to enter our lives and our hearts. This is not to deny that some dogs are very clever or that they are capable of feeling emotion deeply. But their intelligence is different from ours. The idea that some dogs can understand as many words as a two-year-old child is simply wrong and an inappropriate way of trying to measure canine intellect. Rather, their emotional range is more limited than ours, partly because, with little sense of time, they are trapped almost entirely in the present. Dogs can experience joy, anxiety and anger. But emotions that demand a capacity for self-reflection, such as guilt or jealousy, are almost certainly beyond them, contrary to the convictions of many dog owners.
Mr Bradshaw believes that it is difficult for people to empathise with the way in which dogs experience and respond to the world through their extraordinary sense of smell: their sensitivity to odours is between 10,000 and 100,000 times greater than ours. A newly painted room might be torture for a dog; on the other hand, their olfactory ability and their trainability allow dogs to perform almost unimaginable feats, such as smelling the early stages of a cancer long before a normal medical diagnosis would detect it.
The latest scientific research can help dogs and their owners have happier, healthier relationships by encouraging people to understand dogs better. But Mr Bradshaw is also fearful. In particular, he deplores the incestuous narrowing of the gene pool that modern pedigree breeders have brought about. Dogs today are rarely bred for their working abilities (herding, hunting, guarding), but for a very particular type of appearance, which inevitably risks the spread of physical and temperamental abnormalities. Instead, he suggests that dogs be bred for the ideal behavioural traits associated with the role they will actually play. He also worries that the increasing urbanisation of society and the pressures on couples to work long hours are putting dogs under huge strain. He estimates that about 20% of Britain’s 8m dogs and America’s 70m suffer from “separation distress” when their owners leave the house, but argues that sensible training can teach them how to cope.
“Dog Sense” is neither a manual nor a sentimental account of the joys of dog-ownership. At times its rigorously research-led approach can be slightly heavy going. A few more jolly anecdotes might have leavened the mix. But this is a wonderfully informative, quietly passionate book that will benefit every dog whose owner reads it.